Trees R Us
Trees are a vital to our planet’s ecosystem and to human culture. They pump out oxygen, store carbon, filter the air and purify our water. Forests provide refuge for thousands of species. Plants found there are a source of both food and medicine. And trees give us wood for heating, cooking and for building.
Forests and trees
Are the world’s forests declining or decreasing? Turns out it depends on who you ask and what you mean by ‘forest’.
- The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says 50 million hectares of forests were planted from 2000-10 so ‘net’ forest loss was near zero. But these new ‘forests’ were mostly large-scale industrial tree plantations.
- The five countries with the greatest forest cover (Russia, Brazil, Canada, US and China) account for more than half of the total forest area.
- More than 50 countries have forest on less than 10% of their total land area.1
Cut and run
The clearing of millions of hectares of natural forest continues unabated, driven by resource extraction (mining, oil and gas), logging, cattle grazing, urbanization and the expansion of plantation crops like soy and palm oil.
- Of the 100 million hectares of land converted to farming in the tropics from 1980-2000 more than 83% came from clearing rainforests.2
- 80% of the world’s original forests have already been logged. Around 13 million hectares of forest per year were destroyed in the last decade. By region, the biggest losses were in South America (40 million ha), Africa (34 million ha) and South/Southeast Asia (6.8 million ha).1
- 35-60% of the world’s old growth forests are still being logged to make consumer items like toilet paper and cardboard.3
- The five countries with the biggest loss of primary forest (undisturbed native species) in the past 20 years are Brazil, Gabon, Mexico, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. 1
According to the FAO there are 13.2 million workers in the formal forest sector with a combined income of $600 billion, about 0.9% of the global economy.5
- Global trade in forest products: $421 billion (2011).6
- Countries with the highest contribution of the forestry sector to gross domestic product: Solomon Islands, Bhutan, Papua New Guinea, Finland, Sweden, New Zealand, Malaysia.6
Corruption and greed drive the trade in illegal timber.7
- More than 100 million cubic metres (m3) of timber are cut illegally every year, destroying 5 million hectares of forest.
- It’s estimated the illegal logging business is worth $10-$15 billion a year.
- Illegal timber imports from 10 key processing and consumer countries rose from 50 million m3 to 60 million m3 beween 2000-13 – a rise in value of nearly $8 billion.
- The volume of illegal wood imports to China almost doubled over this period from 17 to 33 million m3.
Heat and shelter
Burning wood is often the only energy source, especially in rural areas.
- 2.4 billion people burn wood to cook while 764 million use wood to boil water for drinking.5
- Forest products are used for basic shelter by 1.3 billion people – 18% of the world population.5
Trees absorb and store CO2 from the atmosphere so forests act as ‘carbon sinks’, potentially slowing down the rate of climate change. The more trees, the greater the Earth’s ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Conversely, trees become carbon sources when they are logged or burned.
- Deforestation accounts for around 20% of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions.8
- An estimated 300 billion tons of carbon are stored in forests around the world. Woodlands also regulate rainfall and halt desertification.8
- North America’s boreal forest is one of the world’s largest storehouses of carbon. Canada’s boreal forest alone holds an estimated 208 billion tonnes.9
Forests are rich in biodiversity. When forests are degraded and fragmented, species become isolated from one another and can no longer share genes. This affects their ability to adapt to change and maintain overall species health.
- A typical 10-square-kilometre patch of rainforest contains as many as 1,500 flowering plants, 750 species of trees, 400 species of birds and 150 species of butterflies.10
- The IUCN says forests are home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity.
- Canada’s boreal forest supports 85 mammal species (including bears, wolves, bison and woodland caribou), 130 species of fish, 32,000 species of insects and over 300 bird species.9
Clean air, pure water and medicine
Through photosynthesis trees absorb the sun’s energy, sequester carbon dioxide and pump oxygen into the atmosphere – 40% of the world’s oxygen is produced by rainforests.
- A mature tree can release 1,000 litres of water vapour a day, both cooling the Earth and feeding the rainfall cycle – 30% of rain in the Amazon region has been recycled from the forest itself.
- Forests are an untapped storehouse of beneficial drugs – 25% of all our medications are derived from rainforest plants.11
- Monthly Bulletin, March 2013, nin.tl/wrm-188
- On the edge: the state and fate of the world’s tropical rainforests, Claude Martin (Greystone Books, 2015)
- Canopy Planet, canopyplanet.org/about-us/
- State of the world’s forests 2012, FAO, nin.tl/fao-forests
- State of the world’s forests 2014, FAO, nin.tl/fao-2014
- Contribution of the forest sector to national economies 1990-2011, FAO, nin.tl/fao-sector
- ‘Progress in tackling illegal logging slows as new trends offset effective reforms’, 15 July 2015, Alison Hoare, Chatham House, chathamhouse.org
- Canopy Planet, nin.tl/na-canopy
- Rainforest Action Network, ran.org
- IUCN, nin.tl/icun-forests